Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Gods, Buddhas, and Organs: Buddhist Physicians and Theories of Longevity in Early Medieval Japan

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Gods, Buddhas, and Organs: Buddhist Physicians and Theories of Longevity in Early Medieval Japan

Article excerpt

This article examines medical works aimed at nourishing life and promoting longevity composed or compiled by Buddhist priests in early medieval Japan, focusing on the Choseiryoyoho and the Kissayojoki. These texts provide an especially useful aperture through which to explore the relationship of medical and religious knowledge in medieval Japan, since theories about the aging process were based on fundamental beliefs about both the structure of bodies and the nature of the forces thought to animate them. A comparison of the different types of practices these texts recommended to forestall physical degeneration and spiritual dissipation provides concrete examples of the ways in which Buddhist physicians, or "priest-doctors" (soi), combined Chinese medical theories with knowledge gleaned from Buddhist scriptures, and sheds light on the various conceptualizations of the body that emerged in the intersection of these traditions.

KEYWORDS: priest-doctor (soi)-longevity techniques (yojo)-Choseiryoyoho-Kissayojoki-Rengi-Myoan Eisai (var. Yosai)

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

This article examines the ways in which continental medical and religious traditions concerned with nourishing life and promoting longevity (Ch. yangsheng; Jp. yojo ...) were appropriated in early medieval Japan, focusing on medical treatises composed or compiled by Buddhist priests in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These works shed light on multiple aspects of medieval Japanese religious life. First, they provide an especially useful aperture through which to explore the nexus of medical and religious knowledge in medieval Japan, since theories about longevity and the aging process were based on fundamental beliefs about both the structure of bodies and the nature of the spiritual forces thought to animate them. Second, a comparison of the different types of practices these texts promoted provides concrete examples of the ways in which Buddhist priests and physicians combined Chinese medical theories with knowledge gleaned from Buddhist scriptures, and sheds light on the various conceptualizations of the body that emerged in the intersection of these traditions. Finally, by examining the divergent religious and medical activities undertaken by priest physicians, as well as the changes their theories underwent over the centuries, we can gain a more nuanced and historicized understanding of the various styles of medical thought and practice in which Buddhist priests were engaged. It is worth noting at the outset that although this article deals with what might be referred to as "Buddhist" medical thought and practice, I do not mean to imply a monolithic institutional formation or a perfectly unified medical ideology. As will become clear in the pages that follow, Buddhist physicians varied widely in their medical and religious backgrounds and sampled from an eclectic range of theories and therapeutic techniques in their attempts to cure disease and extend the life span of their patients and patrons.1

The article will proceed in three sections. First, I will provide some background on the circumstances by which Buddhist priests became the preeminent theorists and practitioners of medicine in medieval Japan, and discuss the various traditions of continental medical knowledge that they imported and combined. Next, I will describe how the body was imagined in traditional Chinese yangsheng literature, works dedicated to nourishing and preserving life, and how these theories were represented in the Ishinpo ... (984), Japan's earliest extant medical text. The third section will examine how yangsheng theories were adopted and adapted by Buddhist authors, focusing on two major longevity treatises, the Choseiryoyoho ... (1184) of the priest Rengi ..., and Myoan Eisai's ... Kissayojoki ... (1211). Before concluding, I will briefly discuss Kakuban's ... Gorinkuji myo himitsushaku ... (ca. 1142) and describe how the frameworks he provides for understanding the human body compare to those presented in the Kissayojoki. …

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